At MNCs, sexual harassment complainants face uphill battle

Vinaya Deshpande
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A big ‘no’ to harassment:Girls form a human chain during an awareness campaign on International Women's Day in Bhopal on Friday.– Photo: A. M. Faruqui
A big ‘no’ to harassment:Girls form a human chain during an awareness campaign on International Women's Day in Bhopal on Friday.– Photo: A. M. Faruqui

They are powerful multi-national corporations (MNCs) which hold a clout in the market but have flouted norms with impunity when it came to their own women staffers complaining of sexual harassment at the workplace. Now, even as the country is set to welcome the first law for the protection of women against sexual harassment at the workplace, experts are sceptical about the impact of the legislation on such MNCs.

Aditi Bojkar (name changed) , a chartered accountant who was in her late 30s when she was working with KPMG in 2006 and holding a senior position, allegedly faced sexual harassment at the workplace. The accounting firm failed to constitute an internal committee as mandated by the Vishakha guidelines to investigate her charges. After escalating the matter, when she saw that no action was taken in her case, she offered to resign. Her resignation was not accepted. Instead, the company terminated her services, severely hampering her prospects of future career growth.

When the matter came up in the media and other fora, the company, after terminating her services, set up an internal committee as per Vishakha guidelines. But the victim refused to appear before it. “After the company terminates the employer-employee relationship, what authority does the committee have to investigate my complaint?” she said.

On the other hand, the accused, a senior partner at the firm till recently, continued to flourish in the company. It was recently after the issue of harassment of women caught media attention and the case was revived, that he resigned from the firm. The company refused to comment whether his resignation was related to the charges of sexual harassment.

“He has left on his own accord and the firm has accepted his resignation. We have now appointed Vikram Hosangady as the head of Private Equity for KPMG. Beyond this, the matter is sub judice , so we cannot comment on anything,” a company spokesperson told The Hindu .

Asked if the company would continue paying his legal expenses related to the sexual harassment case, the spokesperson refused to comment. KPMG is also facing a $400 million class action suit for systematic gender discrimination in the United States, according to the U.S. law firm Sanford Heisler.

Incidentally, it was KPMG which recently launched a free mobile application for women’s safety in Mumbai in collaboration with the Mumbai Police, named ICE (In Case of Emergency).

Aditi knocked at the doors of the National Commission for Women, the Maharashtra State Women’s Commission, the Bombay High Court and the police to seek justice. She also had to fight a long battle against cyber defamation after a mainstream newspaper carried her real name and she was subsequently targeted with slanderous remarks in the virtual world.

“The Government completely failed me. The Police did not conduct timely, proper investigation. Even the investigation conducted by a committee of the State Women’s Commission derailed after some time,” she said bitterly. She rues how her right to live and work with dignity was taken away in these years.

Key evidence went missing from the State Women’s Commission as the committee began its proceedings. It is yet to be traced. “A former employee of the company had written to us testifying how the organisation did not have women-friendly policies. I had seen the letter before it went missing,” Anagha Sarpotdar, a former member of the committee, told The Hindu . She has also submitted this in writing to the Commission. But two other women members of the committee wrote a letter after that stating they never saw such a testimony.

According to reports, one of those women is currently in the race for chairpersonship of the Maharashtra State Women’s Commission. The National Commission for Women is now looking into the case again.

Activists said that in many such cases the mighty MNCs get away even without a rap on their knuckles. “Often the victims are more severely victimised, hounded and drained financially as well as personally by the MNCs for raising their voices,” said Sonya Gill, Maharashtra Secretary of All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA).

It happened in the case of Shahana Williams (name changed) who worked with ISS Hicare Private Limited, a pest management service provider which is a part of ISS Group — one of the world’s largest facility services provider with presence in Europe, Asia, US and Australia.

When she complained of sexual harassment, not only did the company fail to constitute an internal committee to investigate into it as per the Vishakha guidelines, it also eventually terminated her services, slapping cases against her. She had to knock at the doors of the Bombay High Court for getting a First Information Report registered against the accused.

  • In most of the cases, the company fails to constitute a mandated internal committee

  • Though victims can now approach courts, clauses 10 and 14 may have a negative impact: activist

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